In Your Hat, pt. 7

Here’s Chapter 7 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, in which she reflects on the early days of Sardi’s and how Vincent Sardi came to use the now-familiar caricatures of celebrities to garner attention for his eatery.

     IT’S surprising what you can learn from hats. There’s something about the way a man wears one that betrays him instantly. He may smile and joke and think he’s fooling the world—but just by watching him when he saunters or hurries up to my window, I can tell him things that ought to get me a tabloid columnist’s job. I can tell when he’s out of work, and when he’s in the money. When he’s playing the market and winning—and when he’s losing. And there’s nothing pseudo-psychic about it! Just observation—and experience.
     Take right at the moment when this ‘umble tome was being concocted. Broadway had been pretty hard hit, and there were hundreds of good actors as well as hams out of work. People who never tipped me less than a quarter before, now fumblingly left only dimes. And apologies were frequent, until I told the hardluckers that there were plenty in the same boat with them. Then, every once in a while, one of the new dime tippers would toss me a dollar bill and say nothing. I knew the answer. He’d landed a job! He was in the dough again.
     But it wasn’t all so simple five years ago when I started on this job, the day that Sardi’s opened. I didn’t know a soul among the big-timers, could barely recognize a few of them. The job had been a sort of birthday present to me, and that first day I was awfully scared—and terribly anxious to succeed. I never dreamed that I’d stick at it five years—and then want to keep it fifty more!
     Five years! It isn’t much when you say i fast—but a lot of things have happened since then. When Sardi’s opened, there weren’t any Broadway columnists, and a man’s biological secrets were his own. There weren’t any talkies, and the blonde and beautiful Tillie Awnertz could murder the king’s English without having to worry about losing her dear public. There weren’t even any nasal crooners—most of them were in college or short pants. Five years!
     A lot of kids of my own generation were just getting their first foothold in show business and thought they were lucky to be able to afford Sardi’s eighty-five cent luncheon. Today some of them are way up on top and never dream of going upstairs for cheaper food, or even looking at the price list when they order their daily delicacies.
     A Night in Spain was running at the Schubert Theatre just across the street, and Phil Baker, Ted Healy and Helen Kane were getting their first big chance. Today Baker and Healy are headliners, and Helen Kane has gained fame, fortune, notoriety and considerable poundage. She was getting fifty bucks a week then—now she gets over two thousand and works when she feels like it!
     Robert Montgomery was an adorable young juvenile who owed money to everyone in town and who frequently ate at Sardi’s on the cuff. He was trying frantically to woo and win the lovely Elizabeth Allen who was playing the lead in Broadway, but no one ever thought Bob would get her because it was doubtful if he could even pay for the license and ring. Today they’re happily married, Robert Montgomery is a screen name to conjure with, and his weekly pay check runs ever so high. And millions of movie fans find him every bit as charming as I did in the days “when.”
     Those first days at Sardi’s were a lot of fun—and a lot of worry too. There wasn’t a great amount of business, the restaurant was big, and the “nut” high. Like every café owner, Sardi wanted his establishment to be a rendezvous of-and-for celebrities. The little place near the Lambs Club had whetted his appetite for Big Names, and Sardi hungered to repeat his success on a larger scale.
     We were talking about the disheartening business one day when things were particularly slack, and Sardi began to reminisce about famous Continental restaurants. Somehow the conversation swung around to Joe Zelli’s in Paris.
     “Zelli’s is wonderful,” exclaimed Sardi. “No one would ever dream of seeing Paris without spending at least one evening in Zelli’s. It’s the rendezvous of all the celebrities. I guess they go there because their caricatures hang on the wall.

     “Why don’t we do that here?” he continued suddenly. “Why don’t we get a good caricaturist and make this place the Zelli’s of New York?”
     I happened to number among my friends one Irving Hoffman, a clever young cartoonist who also did caricatures for the Sunday movie-and-stage pages, and I asked him if he was interested in the idea. But Irving felt that he couldn’t afford to be tied down to one job at that time and declined. However, he had a friend, Alex Gard, only recently arrived from Russia, and Irving enthusiastically declared him the very man for the job.
     He hied Gard into the restaurant the next day, and when Sardi looked at the short, thin young artist, so pale and quietly dressed, it was apparent that the restaurateur was not greatly impressed. Nevertheless, when the young Russian unlimbered his portfolio and revealed some of his work, Sardi’s face lit up like Times Square at night, and he rubbed his hand in sheer delight.
     A contract was quickly drawn up and signed, whereby Gard was to caricature as many celebrities as he wished, in return for two meals a day every day—or one meal for two each day! At the time, it seemed as though Sardi was getting the best of the bargain, for Gard didn’t appear capable of holding very much food. But in the five years that he’s been with us, I don’t think he’s ever missed a day!
     The first thing Gard did was to have fifty plain black picture frames made and hung on the wall just to the right of the entrance. It was funny seeing those empty frames, and people often asked about their purpose. They soon found out, however, for a few days later Ted Healy came in for luncheon.
     When the famous stooge-master was nearly finished with his food, Gard walked up and said in his short, jerky manner, “I am Gard—I want to sketch you—right now—yes?”
     Someone must have tipped Healy off in advance, because he smiled and said, “Sure, go right ahead—it’s okay by me.”
     Gard went ahead with a vim and vigor which surprised all of us. I’ve seen him do innumerable caricatures since then, but I’ve never ceased to marvel at the way this very talented man works.
     He spent about two minutes studying Healy’s face from all angles; then with a small piece of pencil he started to make lightning quick strokes on the piece of white bristol board before him. In an instant Healy’s inimitable face seemed to be leaping from the glistening surface. All the impish characteristics that make his face so interesting were greatly magnified until the finished sketch looked like a very, very naughty little boy. Finally Gard sat back in his chair with a satisfied sigh.
     “There we are,” he said, turning the sketch around so Healy could see it. “There we are—all finished but the coloring I will do at home tonight.”
     Healy stared at the piercing drawing in amazement.
     “So that’s what I’m like,” he said with a grin. “So that’s what I’m like. Wouldn’t Mother be pleased!”
     No one ever did find out whether or not Mrs. Healy would have been or was pleased with Gard’s satirical conception of her son. It didn’t matter. The important thing was that secretly Ted Healy was pleased. He signed the caricature with a flourish.
     A day or two later the finished sketch was hung in the first of the empty black frames, and the new telephoned to Healy. He came in for lunch that day and brought with him Phil Baker, who also wanted to have his caricature (or at least his accordion’s) done. Gard set to work, paying particular attention to Baker’s eyes which are so large and so soulful looking. The eyes in this caricature have often been likened to those of an amorous cow—but Baker adored it—the caricature, I mean.
     Both Baker and Healy continued to eat in Sardi’s, and they brought more and more of their associates with them. It wasn’t long before we had quite a crowd of famous persons coming for luncheon every day. And where the headliners congregate, there you’ll also find the newspaper boys and their keyhole-peeping confrères—the columnists.
     Someone decided to a feature story on Sardi’s for his paper. And when the yarn appeared, it was read by hundreds of people who decided that here at last was an interesting place to dine.
     Regina Crewe, movie critic of the New York American, decided that it would be a good place to bring her movies stars for luncheon, and Herb Cruickshank, her genial husband, decided that he, too, would obtain material for his fan magazine stories over Sardi’s tables.
     These two charming people brought in a host of limelight favorites during Sardi’s first year, and it was only natural that Gard do their caricatures. Accustomed as these cinema lights were to being made to look as beautiful as possible, they never failed to be delighted by the satirical drawings he made of them. And Sardi’s began to become famous!
     For five years it’s been my good fortune to watch them come and go . . . the stage folk, the film folk, the Tin Pan Alley song brigade . . . the producers, the columnists, the critics, the press agents . . . the hangers-on and the regulars . . . the playwrights and the near-playwrights and the hopeful ones who will never write a play . . . the home towners trying to get an eyeful . . . the tourists ferreting out the celebrities that no one ever heard of and missing the genuines . . . and the phonies and poseurs.
     I see them all and hear them all—and now, won’t you please check your hat while I try to remember a few more interesting yarns about them?

< Read Chapter 6 | Read Chapter 8 >

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